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IF YOU WANT young people who have never thought about going to university to give it serious consideration, you have to give them appropriate role models. Which is where the pioneering LEAPS initiative, the Lothian Equal Access Programme for Schools comes into play. The programme aims to boost the numbers from disadvantaged backgrounds signing up for higher education by providing university undergraduates - under professional supervision - to help tutor senior pupils. This outreach programme, which targets 14 designated schools across Lothian, is also used for study support for pupils moving from fourth into fifth year at secondary school.
"Student volunteers are crucial to outreach and summer schools as positive role models and as people with empathy for school students. They also act as a bridge between school students and professionals," says Elspeth Turner, the programme's co-ordinator.
LEAPS works in collaboration with the Prince's Trust, which drew pupils from 23 city secondaries to its summer school this year. Shona Thomson, principal learning support teacher at Liberton High, recalled a former pupil who was so timid that she would not even ask questions in class. "But after the summer school, she went on to speak in front of Prince Charles at a Prince's Trust conference."
This is one of many success stories reported by the wider programme since it started in 1995. Numbers attending its own annual summer schools have been increasing annually, last year's intake growing from 70 to 128.
Ms Turner says: "This has to do with pre-application advice and feedback from previous students. Students are attracted by the pre-application negotiation we undertake with admissions officers and the over-riding fact that the summer school is multi-exit. It also offers them a 'virtual' university first-year experience and that makes finding their feet socially and academically so much easier in their actual first year."
Dedicated to widening school-leaver access to higher education across Britain, LEAPS has recently been attracting the attention of educationists and politicians, including Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, who has cited it as a model of good practice.
Positive perceptions are encouraged from students who do not view university life as either attractive or attainable. It is backed by Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt and Napier universities, and the city's Queen Margaret College, as well as the four Lothian local authorities.
Alex Goodall, principal of the Wester Hailes Education Centre, says the programme is particularly valuable for pupils "near the margin" who need constant support and encouragement. Specifically targeted at pupils who come from families with little or no experience of university life, the schools programme is focused on whole-school populations in designated Lothian schools (nine in Edinburgh); on senior school students in associate Lothian schools (two in Edinburgh); and eligible individual students in all other schools.
Apart from student tutoring and mentoring, specialised workshops are run for S3 to S6 year groups and specialist advice is provided on subject, course and career choices. University visits are encouraged and fifth and sixth year pupils invited to shadow a volunteer undergraduate through a university day.
Pat Sweeney, the head of Holy Rood High, another of the designated Edinburgh schools, praises the programme's "conspicuous presence" at its annual Life after S4 information session for parents.
Mr Goodall says teacher feedback on the student tutors - at one time as many as nine came into Wester Hailes for a few hours each week - has been very positive. "You never know what the key influences on a young person's decision might be but you could compare the influence of the role-model students, who are often only a year or two older than the pupils, to positive peer-group pressure."
The summer school offers a nine-week part-time course geared to preparing students for undergraduate life and provides those students who fail to obtain the passes required for their conditional offers with an additional opportunity to demonstrate their potential to succeed on their chosen degree course. Their summer school report can make all the difference in clinching a place.
The summer school aims to prepare students socially as well as academically for undergraduate life, boosting self-confidence and developing study skills while giving some a second chance to gain entrance to higher education institutions. Participating higher education institutions are committed to holding open places until summer school reports are available, but many others also agree to take summer school reports into account in reaching their decision.
"A significant number of our pupils have benefited from the summer school, where they are actually able to enhance their school qualifications in a very short time," Mr Sweeney says. The number of Holy Rood pupils entering full-time higher education has increased from 13 per cent 1994 to 18 per cent in 1996.
All of the designated schools have seen a significant rise in staying-on rates and in university entrance. At this year's summer school, 76 of the 117 students who completed the school got into university on the strength of their summer school report and another 15 would not have made it into further education without this additional help.
Ms Turner says that, whereas other "special entry" schemes are often focused on science and engineering or are institution-based, LEAPS promotes higher education generally. "These students are viewed as being of equal standing to other candidates," she said. "What we do is ask admissions officers to take their circumstances into account and offer places at their discretion. We don't lower the bar for students: we give them an extra leg up.
"It is very difficult for some schools with a low admission rate to turn this around without some kind of recognition that there are factors out of the control of pupils and teachers that make participation in higher education less likely."
These factors, rooted in what she terms "community culture", can vary from a traditionally relatively narrow range of academic options and negative peer pressure to fear of the unknown and the unexpected.
"But it's also to do with the fact that the higher education sector has changed dramatically within a generation," Ms Turner says. "Where it was inaccessible or unattractive to their parents' generation, our aim is to convince young people that higher education is more accessible and it is more in their personal interests to pursue than they might think."
The abolition of student grants and the introduction of tuition fees will be "a new challenge". Ms Turner has interviewed more than 400 LEAPS students since August and says those from homes with no university background regard the prospect of debt as "a significant deterrent". The majority of students are even wary of applying for courses away from home for financial reasons.
She is worried that student volunteers may not be able to help in summer schools when they may have to work to supplement or pay off their loans. "That will leave us with two options: either pay the students the money they will need to survive or offer accreditation to student tutors as part of their degree. Either way, it will increase our costs."
Pupils are concerned about graduate unemployment. "We encourage them on the basis of career flexibility, that it's better to be with qualifications than without, especially in a society where the idea of 'a job for life' is fast disappearing."
Another main concern is that of incurring debt while failing to complete a degree. "There is a perception that university retention rates vary considerably and they're looking for assurance that they're being given accurate information and, beyond that, that they'll be taught and supported adequately. They all have stories about somebody who's dropped out. They all know a casualty of the system."
But LEAPS is proud that summer school students have begun to graduate and they have done at least as well as a random sample of their peers, and some have done spectacularly well.